Derrick Williams in the trees
You may have heard that there is a famous rookie playing for the Timberwolves. That this rookie is becoming beloved by his hometown fans and a darling of the national press. That this rookie is hugely impacting his new team’s fortunes on the court–on offense, on defense, in wins, in hope and happiness. What is a bit strange, though, is that this rookie is not Derrick Williams, NCAA tournament icon, second pick of the 2011 NBA draft, answer to our wing scoring prayers.
Just about two weeks ago I wrote this about Williams:
Williams so far shares Beasley’s predilection for the off-the-dribble midrange jumper (a taste I’d love to see him weaned off of). But he has been more dynamic than Beasley as a ball-handler, more willing and able explode into the lane and draw contact. And I’ve also been impressed with his willingness and ability to scuffle for easy baskets on the glass and in transition when the offense is not flowing through him (which it usually isn’t). In Williams, I think we’ve seen the inklings of a fairly uncommon virtue: fearlessness and skill with the ball coupled with patience.
All of this is true, I suppose, but five games or so later, it’s not exactly getting at the heart of the matter. Because the truth is that right now Williams looks fairly lost offensively, unsure of how to adapt his game to his new surroundings.
At the moment, the raw numbers are not encouraging. Williams’ true shooting percentage is a far below average 49.2%. His turnover rate is 11.8, which is pretty high for a power forward. In college, he excelled both at shooting threes and drawing fouls, two skills which bode well for a player’s pro efficiency. But this year he has hit just 29% of his threes and has been fouled on just 13.6% of his used offensive possessions, according to MySynergy.
As we’ve all seen, Williams has developed a nice chemistry with Ricky Rubio; many of the Wolves’ most dopamine-drenched highlights have been produced by Williams’ intuitive work off the ball and in transition. But this fact only reveals how unsuccessful Williams has been in other phases of the offense. Check it: according to Hoopdata.com, he has hit on just six of his 25 twos from outside of three feet. According to MySynergy, he has scored on just 37.5% of his isolation attempts and on just 22.2% of his attempts as the roll man on a pick and roll. He has hit only 40% of his spot-up jumpers.
What’s going on here? Let’s start with the inside game. When you watch his college highlights, Williams looks pretty fearsome around the basket. He powerfully but subtly maneuvers past his defender and explodes, with pristine confidence, toward the hoop. But things have been different so far this year. Williams still has the ballhandling skills and dynamic first step to create driving lanes, but once he arrives in the paint he has looked awkward and unathletic; he’s thrown up plenty of gangly bricks and plenty of swatted shots. He seems to be struggling to gather his body as he attempts to finish; without a solid, balanced base, he hasn’t been able to manage the explosiveness and body control that he showed at Arizona.
Is he rushing his shot in an attempt to adjust to the speed of the NBA game? Is he failing to account for the dreaded second defender, that bedeviler of so many former hotshot college scorers? The answer is: both, I think. Williams has appeared hurried and lost in the paint, befuddled by both the complexity and predatory athleticism of NBA defenses.
Nevertheless, one wishes that Williams would be more inclined to take the ball to the hoop. Much like Wesley Johnson, he seems to be viewing his jumper as the move of first and last resort, the path of least resistance when the game is moving too quickly. Which is unfortunate because his jumper has been affected by the same bugs as his inside game. Williams’ shot has always had a strange lean; he angles his torso back, at an angle to the hoop, even as he jumps forward. This isn’t exactly textbook form–ideally, a player would jump straight up and down with his shoulders square to the basket–but it surely served him well in college. This year, though, these ticks seem even more pronounced. The more arrhythmic and jittery his floor game, the more unbalanced his shot appears. He fades even farther away; he jumps even farther forward; his feet splay even wider. He does not look comfortable shooting the basketball.
Derrick Williams remains a tantalizingly skilled and athletic basketball player. It’s still completely reasonable to hope that he will become the wing scorer the Wolves so desperately need. Indeed, Arizona fans say that Williams looked similarly uncomfortable in his first year as a Wildcat and he certainly adjusted to that situation. Right now, though, he looks exactly like what he is: yet another prolific collegian lost in the NBA wilderness, just struggling to find his way.